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VTDigger: Welch Says He Can Work With Presumptive House Speaker Ryan

October 26, 2015
In The News

By Jasper Craven

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan is expected to ascend to the position of House Speaker this week, and while Rep. Peter Welch says he has a good working relationship with the Wisconsin Republican, he acknowledged that uncertainty remains about whether the poisonous partisanship that has paralyzed Congress will continue with Ryan at the helm.

“I’ve had a history of being able to work very effectively with him on concrete issues with mutual concern in his district and mine,” said Welch, D-Vt. “My politics are a good deal different, but I have a great deal of respect for him.”

Welch and Ryan met in the congressional gym when they both worked out using the P90X fitness regime. The two have also worked closely together on policy: Ryan, as budget chairman, was instrumental in reinstating funding to the Vermont Student Assistance Corp. last year and the two pushed against proposed FDA regulations last summer that would have prohibited cheese makers from using wooden boards in the aging process.

While he spoke positively of Ryan, a spokeswoman said Welch was not yet sure whether he would vote for Ryan as speaker on Thursday.

Welch’s praise of Ryan, who was Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012, veered to pointed criticism of the House Freedom Caucus, a group he portrayed as a source of dysfunction in politics that might not let up under Ryan’s tenure.

The conservative group of roughly 40 lawmakers did not officially endorse Ryan’s campaign for speaker, although a large majority of members backed his bid.

Welch said the group, which recently pushed to defund Planned Parenthood, could remain a major impediment to the legislative process, and said the moderate wing of the GOP should “get a divorce” from the conservative wing.

“The question is whether the freedom caucus folks decide they want to go back to the tactics of shutdown or debt default,” Welch said. “They believe it’s a legitimate tactic to shut the whole government down if they don’t prevail.”

Welch said he was hopeful the debt ceiling would be raised before the deadline in early November, and said House Speaker John Boehner would likely partake in the hard negotiations with Republicans as his last act as speaker.

The Vermont congressman wrote a letter to Boehner on Friday demanding that Congress raise the debt ceiling, saying “failing to do so will plunge the nation into default for the first time in American history.”

But beyond his cautious optimism that the ceiling would be raised, Welch was hesitant to assert that Ryan’s speakership would reinvigorate the House and spur action.

He said he was “not sure” if the House would be able to pass comprehensive transportation legislation, which would bring federal dollars to Vermont infrastructure projects. Congress has been extending transportation funding on a short-term basis, and Welch said he hopes the House will be able to negotiate a longer-term plan for next year.

He also said there would likely be more attempts by conservatives to shut down Planned Parenthood and defund the Affordable Care Act.

While Welch had tough words for the Freedom Caucus, he often works with Republicans.

Half of the 14 bills Welch has introduced so far this legislative session have Republican co-sponsors, and a Republican authored nearly 120 of the 295 bills and resolutions that Welch has co-sponsored this session.

A few of the Republican bills Welch has co-sponsored were even introduced by members of the House Freedom Caucus.

He has worked on legislation to reform drug sentencing with Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho; supported legislation from Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., demanding greater transparency on intelligence spending; and co-sponsored a bill prohibiting mistreatment of show horses with Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla.

“When I can do something for Vermont, I work with anybody and everybody down here,” Welch said. “And when I’m in the minority, my ability to work with Republicans is much to Vermont’s advantage.”

But while Welch has amassed a cluster of Republican friends, getting legislation to the president’s desk is still an almost impossible task.

None of the bills Welch introduced this session have become law, and President Barack Obama has signed only seven of the 295 bills Welch co-sponsored, according to congressional records.

One of the passed laws, the USA Freedom Act, is a significant piece of legislation that imposes limits on the bulk collection of communications data by federal agencies including the National Security Agency.

But other laws Welch helped push are less consequential, including one requiring the creation of coins commemorating Boys Town, an organization focused on helping disadvantaged youth.

Welch said he remains committed to striking up Republican friendships, citing extracurricular outings with conservatives, like dinner parties or road trips. But he said friendships alone wouldn’t guarantee legislative productivity.

“The big issue here is that this Congress is broken,” Welch said. “This legislative body isn’t legislating.”